The Compulsive Reader: How Far is Too Far?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

How Far is Too Far?

We all know about plagiarism. The evils of it have been pounded into our brains ever since middle school, even elementary school. We've been warned of the consequences of copying work, or even paraphrasing. While it doesn't seem like that big of a deal paraphrasing a well known fact from some obscure Wikipedia webpage (I mean, you just rearranged the words of an idea, it could have easily come out of your mouth, and out of the mouths of a million other people, right?), consider the Kaavya Viswanathan scandal. Viswanathan's novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was going to be the next great teen novel. Fresh out of high school, she had two novels contracted, and even sold the movie rights. The only problem? Most of the passages were lifted from Megan McCafferty's first two novels, The Princess Diaries, Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, and Sophi Kinsella's work.

And then there's the case of Stephen Glass, reporter for The New Republic, who invented multiple details, facts, people, places, and even events to support his stories and make them more interesting. He wanted the perfect quote for his stories, but didn't have it. So he made one up.

The slacker in us thinks, Well, what's wrong with that? What's wrong with voicing the opinions of a bunch of people, even if no one person said it exactly?

I hear that there's something like only 32 possible plotlines for stories, and yet there are millions of books out there. So there's gotta be coincidences and resemblences in there somewhere, right? So where should the line be drawn?

I believe that it is the writer that makes each and every novel unique and different: their style, their choice of words, the way that they express their characters and their experiences. There is a difference between quoting colloquialisms and copying a phrase coined by your favorite writer and passing it off as original work, and anyone who has to question the difference shouldn't be writing. Each writer is inimitible, their work sacred. To blatantly copy, or even paraphrase, is a gross violation against that writer.

But true writers have their responsibilities too. They have a duty to be honest when it comes to their work. It is perfectly all right to embellish stories, to make up characters and scenarios, as long as it is understood that the work is fiction. To market a fictional piece of work as truth is dishonest, and insulting to the readers. I've known many an author who has taken experiences and situations from their own lives and incorporated them into their writing, myself included. Writing is a medium of expression, and by creating a fictional piece and trying to pass it off as reality would be deceiving yourself.

So what do you think? How far do the boundaries between common ideas and plagiarism extend? When does it go from being slightly exxagerated to outrightlies?


A Literate Musician said...

I've been a journalist for several years and one thing that we have constantly stressed around the office is originality and accuracy. Plagarism is wrong. The line is drawn as soon as someone starts taking "creative liberties."

Chelsie said...

I could not imagine writing a book and taking other people's phrasing and saying it's my own. The line is drawn at saying it's your own when it's really not... I understand that some ideas and even a few sentences might show up in multiple books, but when two books show more than one or two similarities, then it gets to a point where it's gone too far.

Theopinionedreader said...

way to pay attention in AP Comp. lol Johnson would be proud.